Friday, February 12, 2010


I was going through the “Proceedings” of the US Naval Institute for December 09.

It’s an interesting mag, since it is used a) for frank and candid assessment of current Naval Services programs and activities, b) informative and issue-themed looks at this or that program or initiative, and c) some Navy-preferred happy-face boilerplate about whatever particular matter that the Navy wants to spin.

The editorial staff at the mag does a decent job of balancing these not altogether compatible objectives, but it’s always a good idea to look carefully between the lines and behind the text.

The happy-face boilerplate is a phenomenon that occurs with particular resonance in the military world, and Citizens are well-advised to be familiar with it. This may take some effort since unlike those Citizens of the former Soviet dreamland, Americans aren’t used to approaching ‘news’ with a skeptical eye and a pair of tire-kicking mental boots.

There is an iron-bound rule governing the process of in-house military acceptance and implementation of a policy or a program: there’s some time allowed for frank and candid* discussion by the subordinates involved. And then, if the Command decides to accept it, then it suddenly becomes “policy” and “the Command program” and critical comment is no longer the thing to do (if you want to stay employed): now you must be a ‘team player’ and ‘make it happen’ and if there’s any public comment – or even comment to fellow service-members – then it’s the Yes We Can – Ain’t It Grand, Though? – That’s The Policy type of comment or nothing at all.

So here’s this article, on page 52,**, replete with nice glossy photos, entitled “Common Sailors – Uncommon Achievements”. As is often the case with really high-level boilerplate, a Flag Officer (one of the four grades of Admiral (or General), from one-star to four-star) is the ‘author’ and is always significantly placed in the photos, looking chummy or stern depending on what the official Line is going to be.

This Admiral, a four-star, is looking thoroughly chummy; he is Vice-Chief of Naval Operations, a Washington job, but here he is in what appears to be the desert – although there is a body of water and a ship in one of the photos, just so you get the Naval sense.

He appears to be visiting Army troops; they’re all got-up in desert camouflage uniforms, either with soft bush-type hats or the full battle-rattle of helmets and weapons and dark-glasses.

Well, he’s somewhere over there in the Greater South-West Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, and Our modern version of the Eastern Front is nothing if not full of sand – soft, yielding, yet treacherous in its own way.

But this is the Naval Institute “Proceedings” and he’s an Admiral with a particularly Naval type job, so … these must be sailors.

And they are. They are “individual augmentees” – a nice, vague Pentagon term for members of other Services who have volunteered for or been ordered to go – as ‘individuals’ rather than as units – and fill in billets and jobs for another Service.

And don’t think that this is just a temporary thing. In 2006, if memory serves, they opened up a “Training Center” for Navy and Air Force members in one of the Carolinas to learn how to do Army stuff. I don’t know: you give them a couple of weeks doing Basic Training all over again as an Army grunt and … they're soldiers? Some philosophy wag recently defined a “philosopher” as “anybody who draws a paycheck from a Philosophy Department” – so maybe anybody who draws a check from … well, do the math. If you look the part then you are what you appear to be – that’s the PC line for military service nowadays, if I’ve read the Memos in the Correct fashion.

Let anyone who disagrees be re-educated for ‘attitudinal adjustment’! Although that regulation can’t be applied to an ‘enemy’ … or to ‘the sea’. (Somebody in government already went down to the seashore to give orders to the sea … Canute, by name – and he failed to get the waves’ and tides’ attention. Who knew?)

On the current Eastern Front, you find out, there have been 77,000 of them (at one time or another), many doing Army jobs. One recalls the Soviet sailors taken from their ice-bound ships at Leningrad to function as ‘naval infantry’ in that great patriotic struggle against the land-bound Nazi hordes, in that other galaxy so long ago and so far away. There are at least 22,000 of them there in that Area of Operations today (including on ships one hopes), but at least 14,000 of them (more than half) are ‘ashore’ guarding prisoners and “detainees”, standing sentry duty, running convoy duty, running computers, keeping file folders neat, and even doing some “reconstruction” stuff.

And God knows how many are filling in Army billets over here or elsewhere on the planet, so that the Army itself can continue winning at the Front(s).

The text burbles in classic style that these are jobs – or “missions” – that “they never anticipated when they joined the Navy”. Ya think? You sign up for the Navy and you wind up in the Army. Well, actually that’s an Incorrect attitude: you join the Navy and become a “joint warrior”. But the ships of the Fleet, technological marvels, will pretty much sail themselves, so what the hey?

But then, it’s not as if the Fleet is doing so very well that it can afford to spare sailors. The entire Pacific Fleet is considered Unsatisfactory in its readiness and competence to carry out its seaborne missions, more than two dozen commanding officers (and not of tugboats) have been relieved of command for cause in the past few years, the grossly ignored complexities of mixed-gender crews continue to work their dark magicks even though the media prefer not to notice and the brass very much don’t want such things noticed … you’d think the Navy could use every able-bodied sailor it can get.

But no. Tens of thousands of Naval personnel are over there at the Front(s) carrying rifles and hup-two-ing.

Not that their efforts are wasted. “Joint commanders frequently praise their initiative, adaptability, analytical skills, and effectiveness”. As the French would say: Mais oui, but of course.

“Flexibility” and “adaptability” are their strong points. As is the case in the whole country now – a more impressive casting of the old Summer of Love sense of What The Hell?

Much different from “solid” as in performance, and “structured” as in “structural integrity” (sort of a big thing with ships, but then these folks may actually have served more time walking post with a rifle than they have aboard ship).

But not to worry: “Simply put, sailors are excelling on the ground”. Ja! And neatly, the text doesn’t quite go near the more acute phrase “on land”, which might lead a reader to really give some thought as to just what the frak is going on over there.

Not to worry, everything is going very very well indeed! Alas, History has not recorded the identity of that German citizen, listening to the propaganda broadcasts on the radio, who quietly observed that ‘we shall win and win and win until we lose”.

Some of their land assignments, however, include harbor duty (the Arabian Gulf is over there): they are living in shipping containers, keeping an eye on shipping and small boats. Oh, and guarding oil platforms. Can’t forget those. As the text is at pains to point out, the oil flowing there “translates to thousands of dollars every second to the people of Iraq”. Mais oui – to the people of Iraq. Here’s to ‘em! And may God (Ours or theirs or both) have mercy on them, for what they’ve been through.

This little factoid about the oil is one of those things that you just know wouldn’t occur to a swabby standing guard. It’s the sort of staff weenie factoid – perfect for Power Point – that is spewed out ‘for distribution’, to give everyone involved some extra tidbit of purpose: Yes, here I am standing here in a sandstorm with my rifle, but this oil constitutes a $1.53 a day bonus for every man, woman, and child in Iraq (adjusted for inflation perhaps, or according to the current day’s exchange rate in London or Dubai or Beijing. Oh, or New York – how could I forget?)

The Navy’s most senior enisted man – the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy – observes that “sailors demonstrate patience, restraint, and temperament usually reserved for far higher paygrades”. Marvelous – if not miraculous: the entire Navy is apparently actually comprised of senior enlisteds or – judging from the performance of the actual higher paygrades – admirals-without-the-stars. We live, truly, in wondrous times. To be alive must be truly heaven. Are you feeling that yet?

The peroration rings out, though in that flattish bureaucratese that can take the wind out of a typhoon: “Today’s Sailors [nicely capitalized] support the combatant commanders across the wide range of military operations, excelling where professionalism, adaptability, and determination are basic requirements”.

Nothing about ‘naval operations’ in there.

Or about ‘winning’. So don’t expect any happy-face news blurbs about that subject any time soon.


*Whenever you use “frank and candid discussion” in the military setting you have to make certain mental reservations and allowances. Successful survivors in this system develop a sixth sense of knowing just how much “frankness and candor” the Command is really looking for: certain whisker-twitches warn you where the further boundary is. Information as to just how things are going to go regardless of input and feedback can be gleaned from such seemingly irrelevant (and not actionable) indicators as the tone and melodic line of an official voice announcing the existence of the proposal, whether at an official meeting or – more likely – at a cocktail party or a chance conversation in the PX or Exchange parking lot. In a sense, every career military member is an ‘intelligence operative’, always on the lookout for signals and then evaluating their meaning. A lot depends on it.

**Membership required for online review.

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